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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context of Aristophanes' Clouds

The Clouds’ hapless hero Strepsiades argues with his son Pheidippides while Socrates watches from a basket.  Engraving by Joannes Sambucas, 1563 (Wikimedia Commons)The Clouds’ hapless hero Strepsiades argues with his son Pheidippides while Socrates watches from a basket. Engraving by Joannes Sambucas, 1563 (Wikimedia Commons) Athenian comedy of the 5th Century BCE (known as “Old Comedy”) was performed at festivals held in honor of the god Dionysus; the Great Dionysia at which Clouds was staged was attended by thousands of Athenian citizens, foreign residents and visitors from abroad.  Like the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Old Comedy was performed in verse, i.e. poetic meters; but unlike tragedy, the language and diction of Old Comedy varied wildly, from vulgarities and ungrammatical expressions, to parodies of snooty speech, to neologisms and nonsense.  Also in contrast to the legendary stuff of tragedy, comedies conventionally depicted everyday people and contemporary life, albeit in absurd scenarios with elements of slapstick and the obscene. 

Like their audience members, the players of comedy were Athenian citizens, trained specially for the occasion.  Actors (three but sometimes four) wore grotesque masks and padded bodysuits with leather phalluses.  They shared the stage with a chorus dressed in fantastic costumes – birds, frogs and, in this case, even clouds formed the company of Aristophanic choruses.  The chorus had the special role in most of Aristophanes’ comedies of performing the parabasis (“digression”), in which the principal actors exit the stage and the chorus sings in the words of the comedian, directly addressing the audience in his voice to provide his individual, satirical commentary on contemporary issues. 

The comedian Aristophanes produced his Clouds in March of 423 BCE, at Athens’ Great Dionysia festival (in honor of Dionysus, god of wine and theater).  Clouds was awarded third prize at that year’s festival – an outcome that incurred the comedian’s ire.  Clouds satirizes the great philosopher Socrates, then living and teaching in Athens. The second-place comedy that year also satirized Socrates, a concurrence that is more than coincidental and that testifies to the controversial, polarizing nature of the man who would come to be viewed as a foundational figure in the history of philosophy.  The peculiar prominence of Socrates also reflects the suspicion and anxiety with which many Athenians viewed educators and their influence on young people destined to become the city-state's most powerful politicians.

The influence of Socrates (469-399 BCE) upon thought and teaching endures to this day. Socrates’ canonical status was cemented not only in the writings of his student, the philosopher Plato, but also among various competing schools of philosophy that emerged in his wake:  Stoics, Cynics and Skeptics were in vigorous disagreement on matters of philosophical principle, but not upon the importance of Socrates to their own intellectual histories.  Whether to regard Socrates as a gadfly, thorn in the side or imperturbable teacher of virtue was a matter of contest among ancient writers and Athenians generally. 

For all the controversy he provoked, however, several features of the “Socrates” character in Clouds are plainly at variance with the historical man.  The philosopher did not in fact have a school and did not accept payment for his teaching as the fiction of the Clouds has it.  Instead, Aristophanes uses “Socrates” in Clouds as representative of the educational problems facing contemporary Athens.  In the 5th Century BCE, influential teachers known as "sophists" were at the helm of education and the training they provided in rhetoric and persuasion was critical for those with political ambition.  Enriched by tuition fees, sophists were often portrayed as having a certain mercenary slickness and suspected of teaching manipulative tricks rather than the pursuit of truth or the Good Life.   Indeed, it was mainly for this reason that Socrates distinguished himself from the sophists by dressing plainly and refusing to accept money for training in philosophical inquiry. 

Nevertheless, the accusations leveled against Socrates’ character in the Clouds seem to have stuck.   For later, Socrates was tried and executed for charges reminsicent of Aristophanes' intimation in the play, i.e., that the philosopher was engaged in corrupting the minds of Athenian youth.  In any case, Plato certainly considered the play to have tarnished Socrates' reputation. Plato later addressed Aristophanes’ critique in philosophical dialogues set at the time of the philosopher’s trial and death (Apology and Phaedo).  He also featured Aristophanes as a sympathetic story-teller in his Symposium ten or more years after the death of Socrates and around the time of Aristophanes' own death.


Written by Kate Brassel, Core Instructor, Classics, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

M. Revermann, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Comedy. Cambridge (2014)

A.A. Long. “Socrates in Hellenistic Philosophy,” Classical Quarterly 38 (1988) pp. 150-171